ScarJo's face: a mediation on the digital image

Curator's Note

According to Zach Blas, in today’s ‘Global Face Culture’ the face is constantly being mediated and is continually giving away affective agency: 'the face [is] a mode of governance, a quantitative code, template, and standardized form of measure and management'. But the face-as-seen-on-screen has always been this type of image-entity. In Cinema I, Deleuze claims the screen face as an affection-image: close-up, it is the medial thing affecting the viewer. Deleuze describes in detail a scene from Josef von Sternberg’s 1934 film The Scarlet Empress, where the icon face of Marlene Dietrich dissolves in to media: '[...] the face of the young woman is caught between the white of the voile curtain and the white of the pillow […] until we see the astonishing image, which seems to have come from video, where the face is now only a geometric incrustation of the voile'.

This image and Deleuze’s framing register a posthuman Dietrich: not a media celebrity, but a medial entity. In the recent science fiction films of Scarlett Johansson, Johansson’s face is both a medial entity and the audience’s interface: present or implied it is what mediates between the digital, science fiction-otherness and a familiar, premediated expectedness. Like Marlene Dietrich this face is already icon: the most desirable of all faces, quantised, requested, abstracted—an image-entity. The Johansson films knowingly narrativise abstraction—the making of Scarlett Johansson the image. They are not about but rather are showing us the creation of an alien, non-human, commodity from the bones of the perfect human-image: a process of weaponization, othering, estrangement. This is also-always digital image making; Johansson’s face as digital material. As Casey Alt has argued, in object-oriented animation environments a Deleuzean representation of affective space is very much in play. In the interfacing of voile and video-work meaning is affect—there is no effective outside of the image. Likewise in object-oriented programming 'all the changes occur within the separately encapsulated objects'. The morphing cyborgian aesthetics of Scarlett Johansson’s recent screen-face—peeling, dissolving, transforming, replicating, simulating—are an affective close-up, a complex image-entity. 





This is fascinating, Zara. My own contribution this week (to show up Thursday) looks at the surface of Johansson's body as it figures across these recent films. That makes me wonder what you make of your post's emphasis on her face. In other words, how does the (rest of her) body figure into your consideration of her face? Or, let's say, of sur-faciality. I also wonder whether Balazs may have anything to contribute to this conversation. Finally, what of Johansson's position in the popular imaginary? Her alleged blankness of (facial) affect has long been identified as somehow crucial to her sexual appeal. Is that included in how you take these films to "narrativise abstraction"?

Hi Swagato-- thanks! I have just read your entry. I'll post a comment there too. In answer to why the emphasis on the face. I feel uneasy about having made this cut -- separating the face from the body -- but am interested in how this way of seeing the face as separate is an everyday event of digital culture. Although Johansson's "blankness" is described as part of her "appeal", this is (as you suggest) complicated by her specificity, her recognisability, her celebrity. I wanted to think about how this might also be the ambiguity of the face that is anonymously, blankly captured as big data (by surveillance cameras), but is always in a condition of awaiting recognition (by software, or by selfie).

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